“for 99.9% of human existence, the future was static. Then something happened, and the future began to change.”
Charlie Stross's misunderstanding here is as big as the geocentric or creationist one… which is fine, since everyone shares this today-chauvinism, and it probably doesn't cause too much harm, but if you want a better understanding of past & future, try:
- Eric Cline, *1177 BC*
- At least the first chapters of James C Scott's *Against the Grain* & *Art of not Being Governed*
I wrote a bit of longform outlining a better way to look at history and technology and past futures:
@22 Do you mean that in every era people have always thought that the future was very hard to predict?
@wim_v12e There's also that but I was reacting to the historically-uninformed neomaniac notion that the future was 'static' in the past, and that the future today is less so. I think the main culprit is unthoughtfully choosing to narrow the definition of what you choose to call "the future"—if the future is just apps/networks/machine learning, yeah the future in the past had zero of those. But that leaves out so many interesting and important changes in the past. There's a blog post around here…
@22 I suppose in Charles Stross's case he was referring to the rate of change in technology, which was less rapid in the past, although definitely not "static". And I agree with you that there were many important changes that were not caused by technology.
Have you read "Quicksilver" by Neal Stephenson? It's set around the time of the Great Fire of London, and it shows a very dynamic past.
@wim_v12e I realize this is heretical nonsense but—I don’t think technological change is happening faster now than it was fifty years ago (radio and TV), hundred years (cars, planes), 150 years (canals, engines, railroads), 200 years (marine chronometers, textiles) ago. And if you recerse the customary trend to narrow the definition of “technology”, and include linguistic/sociopolitical systems, I think many periods over the last 5000 years have seen faster change. <runs and hides>
@wim_v12e here’s an essay that I skimmed and that seems to say what I mean a little better: https://leadingedgeforum.com/publication/the-pace-of-technology-change-is-not-accelerating-2502/
I wonder if reading the memoirs from the space age (Asimov), from the atomic age, from the air age (Buckminster Fuller), and yes, even “memoirs” like Quicksilver (which I haven’t read yet but have on my shelf!) inoculated me from the neomania of today’s Silicon Valley culture?
Or maybe I’m a curmudgeon… 🤨
@22 I like your term "neomania", hadn't heard that before. What I find interesting is that a lot of the advances in science and in linguistic/sociopolitical systems were achieved long ago. After all, the physics for space flight are Newtonian, Bayes developed this inference theorem in the 18th century, etc. Not to mention our writing system, algebra etc.
Probably most of our fundamental knowledge is over a hundred years old.
@wim_v12e Yes! You've hit upon another deep concern with Stross' keynote: the stickiness of the past. He talks about how “9% of the future is easy to predict with extrapolation, e.g., LTE/5G etc.”, but anyone who’s deployed cellular in the developing world knows GSM (1980s tech) is king. We are still discovering and extracting mathematical & societal value from Maxwell’s equations, number theory, Bayes’ theorem. It’s that old hack, “things change, things stay the same”.
@wim_v12e I guess my agenda is to get people to see how their gut-wrenching experiences with “tech” today, having deciphering the latest mobile OS, Youtube memes, content overload, etc., have counterparts in the past. That their discomfort with “the future” isn’t something new and unique. That, in this disconnect with the past and future, we are kindred spirits with each generation of our ancestors. As a history buff, pretty much any place/time in the past can illustrate this point.
@22 Thanks for that essay, it's spot on:
"many people conflate diversification with acceleration. The impact of technology is expanding on an increasing number of fronts, and this proliferation can mask the fact that the overall rate of adoption for any particular technology hasn’t really increased. "
@22 The rate of increase in compute speed and storage capacity is much higher now than it was in the past. This is provable. So we can process and store much higher amounts of data much faster. This leads to many applications that did not exist before. So in the domain of computation and data processing, the rate of change has undeniably accelerated. Whether this means that technological change is happening faster or not is indeed down to the definition of "technology".
@wim_v12e Today's advances in memory/computation parallel those made in chronometers, sailing speeds, heat engines, windmills, &c.&c.—all of which, like memory/computation, opened up new applications and impacted society. To say “advances today outstrip the pasts’” is to unwarrantedly narrow the scope of “tech” to Silicon Valley’s apps/networks/matrix completion (using data to infer the value of missing data)/etc., right? That was my main concern with Stross' unhistorical assertion.
@22 Nice write-up, thanks for posting it!
@wim_v12e thank you so much for prodding me to think about it and pointing out interesting perspectives!